As nonprofit groups go, Jobs to Move America is an unusually innovative one, although its goals echo those of many other groups: building an equitable economy and healthy environment. In pursuit of those goals, Jobs to Move America—which calls itself a “strategic policy center”—announced a landmark labor agreement on Thursday that seeks to create better jobs, increased opportunities, and greater diversity at New Flyer, North America’s largest producer of buses and also a major producer of electric buses. The agreement aims specifically to help workers at two New Flyer factories, one in Anniston, Alabama, and the other in Ontario, California.

It is not easy to pressure a major corporation like New Flyer into committing itself to improving jobs and increasing diversity, especially when a factory’s workers don’t have a union. But Jobs to Move America managed to get New Flyer to make several far-reaching commitments by getting it to sign a community benefits agreement—in such agreements, community groups, labor unions, or other organizations get companies to agree to specific commitments that would help the community and its residents, often involving promises of higher wages, greater diversity, and new training opportunities; and, on the environmental side, for instance, a commitment to reduce pollution. 

Under the community benefits agreement that Jobs to Move America and New Flyer announced on Thursday, the company promised that, going forward, at its Anniston and Ontario plants, 45 percent of new hires will be from historically disadvantaged groups that have had limited access to good jobs in American manufacturing. The agreement also says that 20 percent of promotions at those plants will be from historically disadvantaged groups. Jobs to Move America said these groups include people of color, women, and veterans.

With some workers shut out of highly coveted apprenticeship programs due to limited education, the community benefits agreement says that New Flyer will have a “pre-apprenticeship” program to help assure that applicants are brought up to the needed level to qualify for apprenticeships—which often lead to major increases in skill levels and pay.

“The agreement is a milestone for working families in Alabama. It’s a first, but it won’t be the last,” said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, which also signed the community benefits agreement. Douglas praised the pre-apprenticeship program, saying it would “help end the pattern of no on-ramps for worker progress in oppressed communities.”

Community benefits agreements share some important aspects with the card check neutrality agreements that unions often seek with employers to make it easier to unionize a workplace. Whether it’s a nonprofit group or a labor union, it takes some serious leverage to pressure a company like New Flyer into signing a community benefits agreement or a card check neutrality agreement.

Madeline Janis, the executive director of Jobs to Move America, is a master at exerting such pressure on companies; indeed, Janis, during her years heading the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, was a pioneer in developing community benefits agreements. 

To pressure New Flyer into signing the community benefits agreement, Janis deployed several strategies. First, Jobs to Move America sued New Flyer, accusing it of making fraudulent statements and failing to pay its workers as much as it had promised as part of its proposal for a $500 million contract to produce up to 900 buses for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. New Flyer denied any underpayments or other allegations.

As a second strategy to exert pressure, Jobs to Move America publicized a study that found a pay gap of $3.14 an hour between Black workers and white workers at New Flyer’s factory in Anniston, Alabama. That study, by Emily Erickson, a professor at Alabama A&M University, also found that African-American workers were denied promotion opportunities, were more likely to get hurt on the job, and had more unstable schedules. Furthemore, it found that two-thirds of Black workers said racism was an issue at the factory. New Flyer denied any pay inequity or racial discrimination. 

Not surprisingly, New Flyer feared it could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with transportation agencies because of the lawsuit’s fraud allegations and the study’s findings of racial discrimination, as Jobs to Move America has numerous allies in transportation agencies across the United States. 

As part of Thursday’s announcement, New Flyer agreed to a $7 million settlement, while continuing to deny any wrongdoing. The company also agreed to stricter oversight to help assure future compliance.

Janis hailed the agreement as the first-ever multistate community benefits agreement and the first-ever community benefits agreement in the Deep South. In an interview, she said, “We are in the midst of this massive transformation of the manufacturing economy from fossil fuels to clean energy, and we’ve got this huge public investment going into this transition, and this agreement shows that it can be done in a way that benefits the factories, the workers, the community, and especially communities of color.”

Joining Thursday’s announcement, Kathleen Kirkpatrick, the political director of Hometown Action, an Alabama social justice group, said, “Community benefit agreements are such important tools to achieve a just transition. So many rural workers are looking for new opportunities. We see community benefits agreements as a way to structure a path to achieving better communities.”

Thursday’s agreement says that a designated community organization will assist employees in making and resolving complaints about perceived harassment or discrimination through New Flyer’s internal grievance process.

Douglas of Greater Birmingham Ministries said, “For the first time in Alabama, there is a legally enforced agreement with a corporation that will be on record agreeing to principles of worker fairness and community benefits including definable goals in racial and ethnic hiring equity.”

New Flyer said, “Workforce development and diversity, equity, and inclusion have always been important to New Flyer. We and JMA [Jobs to Move America] are aligned in wanting to provide equal opportunity for people and communities to thrive.”

Jobs to Move America is backed by various unions, including the United Steelworkers, the International Union of Electrical Workers, and the United Auto Workers. Janis said, “I hope that the partnership we have with this now high-road company will support the ability of workers to choose a union if they want.”

Janis played a key role in developing the first community benefits agreement; it was in the late 1990s, when a prominent developer proposed a huge hotel, entertainment, and shopping project in Hollywood, which includes the giant theater where the Oscar ceremonies are held each year. Janis, then head of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and her ally, Los Angeles City Council member Jackie Goldberg, warned that they could get the council to block the project and deny it $90 million in tax abatements unless the developer, TrizecHahn, agreed to a community benefits agreement. 

TrizecHahn signed such an agreement—the nation’s first—and in it, the developer pledged that the project’s new hotel would retain workers from the previous hotel on the site and that the hotel’s workers would receive the same pay and benefits as Los Angeles’s unionized hotel workers. The company also agreed that Los Angeles’s living-wage law would cover the janitors, security guards, and parking attendants it hired for the project’s shopping mall and parking garage. It also promised to recognize a union at the Oscar awards theater (now called the Dolby Theatre). 

In addition, TrizecHahn agreed that when choosing retail tenants, it would favor those that paid a living wage and provided health insurance. As part of the community benefits agreement, TrizecHahn also promised to hire many people from the area—68 percent of the hotel’s employees would come from neighboring zip codes. 

  In the years since that pioneering community benefits agreement with TrizecHahn, community groups, environmental groups, and labor unions have gotten companies to sign dozens of such agreements

Discussing these agreements, Janis said, “Community benefits agreements are all driven by the vision that the economy needs to serve the people who are in it.” She added, “People have a limited idea of what community benefits agreements can do. We can make a community benefits agreement whatever we want it to be.”